A Sturdy Framework: A defense of the bishops' new high school catechesis

William J. O’Malley, S.J., raised a number of pertinent questions in “Faulty Guidance” (Am., 9/14), a critique of a recent document published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age. Father O’Malley has been teaching “in the trenches,” as he put it, for 43 years, and I found much to agree with in what he wrote. Nonetheless, I see a need for this Framework, however, and wish to offer a further reflection on its value.

My first experience of teaching religion to young people in high school took place when I volunteered to teach a survey of the Bible to freshmen at our abbey school. Over five years I learned how to teach, and since then I have spent a lifetime in religious education. My doctoral dissertation discussed the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Heschel and its value for catechesis. Many people admired Heschel for his support of the civil rights movement and of peace in Vietnam, for his profound faith in God and for his poetic way of witnessing to faith. Heschel became a favorite on the Catholic lecture circuit; he told stories to illustrate his teachings. One of his stories fits the theme of this article:


A rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you could see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the teacher. “Could it be,” asked another, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the teacher.” “Well then, what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you look at the face of any man and woman and see that she or he is your sister and brother, because, if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”

A good story is a masterful teaching tool for a religious educator. Its success depends on coming in under the radar of your students or, in more spiritual terms, touching their hearts. A story temporarily subverts logic-chopping and communicates the peaceful meaning of divine truth.

Giving Structure to a Love Story

I include stories in this article to illustrate that stories are powerful carriers of faith. The bishops’ Framework has no stories in it, yet it is based on the grandest narrative in all of history. Divine revelation, on which the Framework is constructed, is one long, great “love story” from the creation to God’s triumph over sin and death in the Book of Revelation. Every year the liturgy re-presents this love story, which will always have a catechetical focus. For its part, the Framework gives coherence, order and structure to this love story. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., in The Road to Nicea, claimed that the human mind moves from undifferentiated consciousness to differentiated consciousness. The Framework is an example of that process. The Framework takes the divine love story of revelation and expresses it in an orderly, systematic fashion, which the human mind demands. It provides our God-given intelligence with the tools to communicate and defend the faith.

A few summers ago, as part of a seminar at Oxford on the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, we took a field trip to Littlemore, where Newman lived with a group of friends just after he left the Church of England. Today Littlemore is a museum that preserves memories of Newman. It is a prayerful world presided over by the Sisters of Work. The most touching room is Newman’s study. Bookcases line the walls, as do pictures from his childhood and family life. In the months just before Newman’s reception into the church, he stood at a writing desk and composed his masterpiece, The Development of Doctrine.

One of the sisters told us that on a dark and stormy night someone knocked on his door. It was his friend, the Passionist priest Dominic Barbieri, who told Newman, “I have come to receive you into the Catholic Church.” The ceremony took place the following morning. It concluded with Mass celebrated on the writing desk, which flattened out into a makeshift altar. Newman’s majestic words about the development of doctrine, which he disentangled into a coherent classic of faith, were penned on the same desk-table where he made his first Communion as a Catholic. That masterpiece has led some scholars to call Newman the invisible father of Vatican II.

I revive that story because the Framework, which is resolutely and correctly doctrinal, owes its existence to the hard work of doctrinal study by some of the brightest and saintliest teachers in history. To note that it is a product of hard work is an understatement. I agree and sympathize with those contemporary teachers who look at the Framework and wonder what they are supposed to do with it. I comfort teachers with a quote from the Introduction: “Since this is a framework, the doctrines and topics designated are not necessarily defined or completely developed. Such details will be present in the catechetical texts and materials that will be developed on the basis of the framework.”

The Rigors of Learning

We should never consider the teaching of religion to high school youth an easy matter for teachers or students. Real learning is tough. Genuine education is rigorous. We accept that fact for math, English, physics, computer science, but some educators become “soft” in teaching the faith. The old adage “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance” is still true. We should be no less demanding in our expectations for students studying their faith than we are when they study other subject areas. Faith will give their future lives purpose and focus. It must be taught in a way that is rationally secure and builds a strong foundation to equip them for life in a secularist and pluralist culture.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret of people who achieve success is spending “ten thousand hours” on the project before ever making a breakthrough. Why repeat in the four years of high school the review of the grand narrative of divine salvation? Why not? Has anyone, student or teacher, yet spent the requisite 10,000 hours to pierce the wall of love and mystery that is the divine desire to be with us?

Father O’Malley correctly notes the absence of method in the Framework, but I see no reason for opposing the Framework because it says little about the methods of teaching doctrine. I concede that is its limit, but that is also its strength. Clarity of doctrine is essential for students today. They have a need and a right to know the teachings of Christ and the church. Catechesis is not an either-or matter. It deals with the what, the how and the why of our courses. The what is the content for which the Framework provides an outline. The how is the rich variety of methods that help communicate the content. The why is the goal of salvation from sin, the gift of participating in the divine nature and the promise of eternal life. The intention of the Framework, as stated in the Introduction, calls on publishers to develop the appropriate methods and the proper implementation.

Facts About the Framework

On November 14, 2007, the U.S.C.C.B. approved a Framework for catechetical curriculum for young people of high school age. The vote was 221-0. The document was produced by the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, whose members included bishops and consultants, of whom I was one. Drafts had been sent to bishops, diocesan leaders, teachers and religious communities for consultation.

The purpose? The bishops want to foster in our high school students a deeper personal relationship with Christ. They hope that a Christ-centered Framework that is systematic and comprehensive will serve this goal. The Framework is a service to our young people, helping them know and love Christ and live according to his truth. In this way high school age students are enabled to participate more deeply in the life of the church and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to reach eternal life with God in heaven. It is a very high ideal; but teenagers are well suited to idealism, and their personal development is related to human and faith-based challenges.

The bishops offer the Framework to publishers as an outline for developing their textbooks. For years publishers have provided books and resources for our elementary age students. Their materials have been improved by conformity to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a manner that engages young people with the faith. The bishops hope they will use the Framework as a guide for the development of high school age curricula.

According to the Introduction, “In addition to aiding those creating catechetical texts and materials, this Framework will also serve to aid those responsible for overseeing catechetical instruction within dioceses as well as those responsible for curriculum development or the development of assessment instruments designed to complement texts, programs or curricula.”

I agree with Father O’Malley that in both content and method the catechist is an evangelizing teacher. Through teaching the truths of faith and using effective methods, the catechist calls students to conversion to Christ and a lifetime commitment to him and his body, the church.

Pope John Paul II, a master of evangelization, wrote in On Catechesis (Catechesi Tradendae) that the first goal of catechesis is conversion to the person of Jesus Christ. Without conversion all else is useless. The pope stressed that the language, tone and method must serve the evangelistic purpose (Nos. 18-19). The Framework fully supports this catechetical goal and builds upon it.

In his first trip to the United States in 1979, Pope John Paul celebrated Mass at Boston Common. As rain soaked a half million people he challenged the youth, “My dear young people, I offer you the option for love. I offer you the option for Christ.” Almost always he would add, “Do not be afraid.” The pope did not force people to accept Christ; he invited them with love. He did not impose the faith; he proposed it.

I am led by Pope John Paul II to say: Don’t be afraid of the Framework. Realize there are many good and faithful people preparing materials that make the teachings of Christ and the church accessible to teachers and students alike. It may take time to make all of it sufficiently available. This gift will be a support for your admirable dedication to teaching and witnessing our faith.

I commend Father O’Malley for raising many important questions, especially the need for a prologue to the Framework, a proposal I support. His concluding recommendations are the testimony of a veteran catechist; thousands of students owe him thanks for respecting their need for knowing and loving the God of the grand love narrative and the church.

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Andrew Russell
9 years ago
What Frater McBride neglects in his essay is that the New Framework focuses almost entirely on the Doctrine / Creed Section of the Catechism and does little to focus on the other areas of the Catechism.  It would be difficult to convert youth to a loving / discipleship relationship with Christ by merely teaching about Christ (Creed), without learning how to be in relationship with him (prayer), or how we as Cathlic Christians encounter him (worship/Sacraments).  Yet this is the approach the Framework implies, and may lead publishers to produce.  Secondly the Framework dictates the courses to be taught at different levels, and the sequence.  It leaves no room for other faith subjects drawn from other sections of the Universal Catechism.  Neither does the Framework suggest The consultation that Fr. McBride alludes to in preparing the framework was very limited compared to the broad collaboration in preparing "The Challenge of Adolescent Catechesis." 
The National Directory for Catechesis says that adolescent catechisis should present the core content of the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church; that it should provide content that responds to age appropriate needs, interests and concerns; that it integrate knowledge with liturgy, prayer and skills for living the faith; that it provide real-life application of learning; and among other things that it invite them to explore a call to ministry and evangelization.  The new Framework does little to address these features called for in the NDC.  In short it does a thourough job of promoting teaching about Christ, but little to promote relationship with Christ. 
9 years ago
Although I appreciate this discussion, albeit tardy since the gudilines are now obligatory, I still believe that we are missing the point.  At my college prep Dominican high school, we do incorporate already ALL of the doctrinal elelments, yet in ways that foster faith to teens.  Simply mandating a curriculum is dry and uninspiried.....There is almost no church history, very little Old Testament, and the senior electives are ho-hummm.  How are we preparing our Catholic teens to enter the secular college environment if they have no recourses to combat it?  No understnanding of the Reformation, no Christian philosophy as a senior elective, no God in literature or film?  Once again, the bishops believe themselves to know how to teach and reach teens.....having a class in Oxford is a heck of alot different than teens in Houston.
Julie Donati
St Agnes Academy
Houston, TX
Elaine Tannesen
9 years ago
Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that our bishops came up with a Framework that appears to be disconnected to the world of adolescence.  Many of them were chosen for their loyalty to Rome rather than their connection to the laity.
Most of a lifetime of living with and working with adolescents has led me to believe that these years, although exciting, can be excruciatingly difficult.  Multiple temptations, raging hormones, deep personal insecurity, shifting friendships as well as suffering from and seeing friends suffer from poor choices can make these times pretty painful.  The last thing needed is a dogmatic theological document.
Adolescents need all the powerful teaching techniques mentioned in these articles and comments.  In addition, they especially need the lived experience of love, the experience of giving service to others alongside spiritual mentors.
Adolescent sheep wander bleating and starved for spiritual nourishment.  It does not appear to be provided by the Framework but, rather, by those that answer the call to tend to and lead this flock. This flock contains the precious future of our church.


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